A Rolf Potts interview mash-up

Though the Interviews page at RolfPotts.com features an extensive roundup of media dialogues I’ve done over the years, not every Q&A I’ve done has reached my typical audience. Sometimes this is because the interview is for an academic project; other times it’s for a non-English-language periodical; and yet other times it’s part of limited promotion that doesn’t reach a wide online audience.

In the interest of re-examining the subject matter of these Q&A dialogues, I’ve decided to create a “mash-up” of three different interviews I did with (A) a journalism student at the University of Cumbria; (B) a Portuguese newspaper called 24Horas; and (C) an MSNBC promotion called “Fearless.” The result is as follows (and from the tenor of each question you might well be able to guess who asked what):

What have you learned from traveling to so many countries?

I have learned to be patient and humble, and to go slow and listen more than talk. I have learned that there are good and bad people everywhere, and that there is a lot of diversity even in one place. I have learned to explore my own country in a new way.

Does an adventurous outlook on life come naturally to you? Are true vagabonds born, or can they be made?

I’m not sure that this outlook came to me naturally, but it did become a part of my philosophical life-journey. Even though my parents weren’t big travelers, they instilled in me values like thrift and non-materialism. They encouraged me to embrace experiences instead of “things.” As I got older, I was drawn to the philosophical sensibilities of classic American thinkers, like Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir, and Walt Whitman. So even before I traveled much, I think I’d cultivated good instincts for living simply and looking for wealth in life experiences.

Of course, getting out and traveling really enlivened this philosophical outlook, and brought these lessons to life in a vivid way. I remember traveling around the USA for 8 months at age 23, and reading Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in Montana. Poems like “Song of the Open Road” suddenly made sense in a whole new way. As my travels went international, this “different” way of thinking became even more important. I realized that travels weren’t just something that you throw money at in the hopes of having a good time; rather, I learned that taking things slow — investing time rather than money — was the surest way to get a meaningful experience of a place.

I’ve been on the road most of each year for over a decade now, and I’m still discovering and re-learning these lessons of travel and life. So I think a vagabonder can be made — insofar as he or she is willing to make those little sacrifices of comfort and convenience that invariably come with the journey.

How does one start vagabonding? What advice might you have for a stable nine-to-five office type who is looking to add some international adventure to their life?

First and foremost, just make the decision to do it. You can spend you whole life putting off what you really want to do, so it’s important to start focusing your dreams immediately, even if that international adventure won’t be a physical reality for another five years. It’s actually really energizing once you’ve made the decision to set out and make the journey. What might be an otherwise unremarkable stretch of two years of working in an office can actually be kind of thrilling when you know that this work is going to finance an amazing adventure. That’s why I encourage everyone to embrace their work, even if they don’t particularly like it — fun or not, work is how you earn your freedom to make your travel dreams a reality.

Once you’ve made that decision to take off and dedicate a few months or even years to international adventure, then you can throw yourself into research and planning, which itself can be a lot of fun. As for stability, it’s kind of a trade-off. Obviously there is an element of risk involved in leaving a steady lifestyle for a life of travel and adventure, and this isn’t for everyone. But you have to put things into perspective and realize that you’re only given so many years in life. Which will you remember best in your old age — a two-year journey around the world, or a 20-year stint of working and saving for retirement? Naturally, the uncommon choice is going to be what makes your life experiences richer.

Of course, I don’t mean to knock those who choose a stable lifestyle — there are rewards inherent in that kind of life, too. But if you’ve dreamed of getting out and exploring the world at some point in life, it’s worth it to forego some stability as an existential tradeoff for that life-adventure. I have yet to hear from anyone who regrets taking that risk.

How has the response generally been since Vagabonding was published in 2003?

Vagabonding was published around the same time the U.S. was invading Iraq in 2003, so at the time the media was fixated on war and danger. There was very little press coverage back then for something so understated and optimistic as personal, long-term travel. Nonetheless, the book struck an immediate nerve at a grassroots level, and it’s become steady a word-of-mouth success that is now finding more new readers per month in 2009 than it was in all its earlier years of publication.

Only recently have I begun to get major press as a long-term travel “guru,” but I’ve been getting emails from vagabonders for years. Naturally, a lot of these letters come from young travelers who are outgetting their first, ecstatic taste of world travel — but I get lots of letters from families and retired folks as well. Not to mention people in their 20s and 30s and 40s who are burned out with the workaday routine and want to take some time off to wander the world in earnest. Most people like the fact that I don’t pigeonhole or stereotype who can and can’t take off and go vagabonding. They appreciate that I present the practicalities of long-term travel in a philosophical, make-the-most-of-your-life context. I’ve discovered that the inspiration my book offers has been as important as its information.

In short, I’ve discovered that scores of would-be travelers out there are looking for that extra nudge of encouragement — not just to take off and travel, but to do start making plans now.

What changes/opportunities in travel writing do you think have occurred in recent years with the success of the Internet?

Certainly there are more opportunities to publish travel articles and narratives in various online magazines and blogs. Getting one’s writing out there is thus easier, and the best writers and researchers can quickly make a name for themselves in this environment. There is a lot of crap out there on the internet, but there is also some of the best narrative travel writing to be found. Glossy magazines are still out there, still succeeding to some degree, but as much as ever they contain service information far more than narrative storytelling. But the Internet is definitely making up for it.

What travel experience, place or person that marked you the most?

The experience that affected me the most was probably two years of teaching English in South Korea. This was before I was a writer. I was very young and I didn’t have much money. Spending those two years in a strange Asian country forced me to slow down and appreciate cultural differences and opportunities. I’d recommend a few years of overseas living/working to any young person (or not so young person) interested in really learning more about the world.

What is the message you want to pass to your generation?

That travel is not as expensive or difficult as you think — and that the world has a lot to teach and offer. I want people to realize that time is the truest form of wealth in life, and that how you spend your time is more important than how you spend your money. If you dream of traveling the world, you can make this happen, even if you aren’t rich.

Posted by | Comments (6)  | July 13, 2009
Category: Travel News

6 Responses to “A Rolf Potts interview mash-up”

  1. Chris Says:

    Hear, hear! I second you with the second stanza of Robert Herrick’s well-known poem, “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May:”

    “…Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old Time is still a-flying; And this same flower that smiles to-day, To-morrow will be dying. The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun, The higher he’s a-getting, The sooner will his race be run, And nearer he’s to setting….”

    If you’d like to keep this verse in mind while enjoying some late-nineteenth century artwork on your computer desktop, you can download a July 2009 desktop calendar (which includes Herrick’s poem) from http://www.Artmagick.com (look under RECENT UPDATES on the Artmagick homepage). I just downloaded it, myself, yesterday.

  2. Shashi Says:


  3. Nora Says:

    Hi Rolf,

    There seems to be a dichotomy within the long-term travel arena: one that suggests if you are not constantly on the move, you are not “traveling”. For example, some would say during your two years in South Korea, you were an ex-pat and not a traveler.

    I would surmise that naysayers of slow travel are not travelers themselves for the most part. I believe that until somebody actually embraces long-term travel themselves – and learns to appreciate the benefits of slow – sometimes really slow – travel, this will always be a point of debate. Like you said, your time in South Korea was the most life-shaping of your travel experiences. How can this not be considered travel?

    How do you weigh in on this?

  4. Rolf Says:

    I tend to think that “travel” is a very flexible term that can encompass experiences in your own neighborhood as easily as on-the-move journeys and expat stints…

  5. Nora Says:

    Muchly agreed: thanks!